Thursday, April 01, 2004

To Know Your Mind, Understand Your Brain

Mind Wide Open: Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life

By: Jim Robbins


How is our ability to peer inside the black box of the brain, and to tease out what is going on there, changing the way we view ourselves? That question propels a new book called Mind Wide Open: Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life, by Steven Johnson, a New York writer who was a founder of the Internet magazine Feed. His book’s title is derived from a poem by John Keats that urges us to “open wide the mind’s caged doors,” and the book helps us to do just that.

Johnson poses good basic questions about the implications of brain science and puts them into a well-researched, informative, and engaging package—always a challenge when such things as orbicularis oculi, neurotransmitters, and the medial frontal gyrus are the subject. 

Of course, explosive growth in research on the brain has generated much fodder for books like this one. Daily, the door to understanding what underlies our cognitive, emotional, and volitional selves is cracked open a bit wider. But of the many books devoted to imparting this newly discovered information about the brain, few ask the basic question: What effect is the knowledge having on our sense of who we are? Johnson asks it and answers that “a more informed understanding of your brain’s internal architecture can change the way you think about yourself.” 

Even simple knowledge of brain function can catalyze revelation. A few years ago, I wrote about a family whose young son was a behavioral horror show. He punched a little girl, climbed towering trees to dangerous heights, and blurted out dark and terrible things. Then, one day, his doctor said that an electroencephalogram (EEG) showed he suffered from grand mal epilepsy, which could be at the root of the behaviors he exhibited. “He was so elated to have a reason for this behavior,” his mother told me. “He ran around telling everyone ‘I have epilepsy,’ and now he had an explanation of why he was doing these things.” The diagnosis produced a profound shift in how that boy thought about himself. How many other children or adults are lazy, violent, pathologically angry, depressed, or somnolent not because they want to be, I wondered, but because they are shackled to imperfect brains? And how many of them know that?


Many of us now take for granted the routine extraction of information about the mind and brain, but it is a fairly recent phenomena. For most of history, the software of the mind was a deep mystery. 

True, people long suspected that the three pounds of tissue behind their eyes was somehow responsible for the decisions they made and the emotions they felt. Before the time of Christ, Hippocrates wrote, “I am of the opinion that the brain exercises the greatest power in man.” But, with equal authority, others speculated that this power might reside in the spirit, the heart, or somewhere else. Not until the late 1800s did a Liverpool physician and medical school lecturer, Richard Caton, prove that the brain generated electricity. He hooked a galvanometer to the brain of monkeys and rabbits, dangled a raisin in front of them, and showed that the galvanometer registered an electrical spike in the brain. 

In 1928, Hans Berger, an Austrian psychiatrist, first measured the human electroencephalogram—literally “electric head picture”—on the scalp of his 15-year-old son, Klaus. This first external measurement of human brain electricity provided clues that something was happening inside the head that was related to our level of arousal. Johnson rightly points out, though, that this kind of testing is also an external measurement of internal processes. 

With a strong sense of wonder, Johnson sets out to sample some of the technologies used to study mind and brain— some simple, some sophisticated—and talk to the experts. Although he writes about how society is being changed by what researchers are finding, his is fundamentally a personal journey into his own mind and brain and how they are altered by everything from biofeedback to a trip into a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) tunnel. He takes his own emotional experiences—feeling fearful over a shattered window, the experience of 9/11, laughing at a joke—and then gets to the neurologic bottom of what is going on. The conceit works. He casts a wonderfully wide net and comes up with interesting results.



Mind Wide Open begins with the simplest of technologies: “mind reading” techniques by which we intuit a multitude of things about people from observing their faces. This chapter introduces Duchenne de Boulogne, a 19th century French neurologist who studied facial expressions, and Simon Baron-Cohen, Ph.D., a contemporary British psychologist who studies what people glean from the facial expressions of others. Whether we realize it or not, we constantly interpret such things. This facial language is incredibly informative, Johnson says, and it does not lie. 

People use different muscle groups to produce a fake versus real smiles, for example. They smile with their eyes when the smile is genuine, using a muscle called orbicularis oculi. “Modern brain scans show that pleasure centers in the brain light up in sync with orbicularis oculi, but show no activity with the mouth alone,” Johnson writes. “The next time you want to know if your beaming waiter wants you to have a nice day, check out the outer edges of his eyebrows; if they don’t dip slightly when he smiles, he’s faking it.” (Coincidentally, as I was writing this review, I saw an analysis of the smiles of Democratic presidential primary candidates John Kerry and John Edwards—Edwards, it said, smiles with his eyes far more than does Kerry.) The chapter also takes us through the world of the “mind-blind,” the autistic, who have trouble reading facial expressions. Because researchers suggest that autism exists on a continuum, there are undoubtedly many people whose ability to read faces is poor to nonexistent, putting them at a great disadvantage in social situations.

A few chapters were less revealing. I found the chapter on biofeedback disappointing. Johnson gets caught up in the journey and forgets his destination, failing to make a persuasive case that being able to see and control a mirror of his brain on a computer screen alters his perception of himself. Some of what Johnson writes here is tedious—a long section on the Comprehensive Attention Battery, for example. Learning about attention, he says, “I started to feel as though the different modes of attention were emanating from different physical locations in my head.” Brain scientists he was interviewing told him that it was impossible, so he writes off his experience as a trick played by his mind. 

This chapter, however, was the exception. Most of the book is by turns illuminating and entertaining, always tightly written, and full of new information. Johnson is most engaging, for example, in describing his experience of fear after 9/11. He journeys through the fight-or-flight response and a proposed alternative response to stress called “tend and befriend”—a strategy supposedly favored by many women. Johnson comments: “You can combat stress by literally going into combat with it; or you can reach out to your support group.” 

He also ponders the so-called “cuddle drug,” oxytocin, the neurotransmitter scientists say underpins the bonding experience. Here, Johnson describes a potential drawback to knowing too much about brain physiology. “There is something about the idea of a dedicated love circuitry in the brain that rubs certain people the wrong way. We accept readily enough the idea that our fear response should have its own chemical and neuronal architecture, but somehow it seems demeaning to suggest that a comparable physiological substrate exists for feelings as rich as love.” But he does not agree, arguing that neuroscience is not “unweaving the rainbow.” He offers his belief that “love is universal and at the same time unique, not unlike a fingerprint: the component parts are invariably arranged in novel ways, but the components themselves are universal.” 

Johnson repeatedly identifies the quirks of his own brain, and, once he has done so, holds that quirk in mind like a trapped bird, examining it from all angles, until he extracts its secrets. He wonders, for example, why his brain retains clear memories of arguments friends or colleagues have made, and why he ruminates over them, making counter arguments or concurring arguments (in his head) even weeks or months later. The French, he writes, call this l’espirit d’escalier—literally “the wit of the staircase”—which is an apt description of how we often think of the proper response to a surprising argument or turn of events on the way downstairs to leave. That concept launches him into an enlightening description of the powerful effect of novelty on the brain. Our brain dwells on new arguments, arguments we had not considered until then, because we are neurochemically predisposed to respond to surprise, he says, whether that surprise is a turn in the narrative of a novel or someone jumping out of a cake. Surprise releases a cascade of dopamine, which is a reward chemical. This is no doubt why Johnson’s book is full of surprising things about the brain. 

Johnson also productively wonders about such things as why music gives us goose bumps. Endogenous opioids, which are believed to create social bonds, are the reason, experts conclude. He describes a study of chickens by neuroscientist Jaak Panskepp, who played music for a flock of clucking chickens and found—yes—that they responded with shivers of pleasure (chicken bumps?). The tune that gave them the most pronounced positive response was The Final Cut by Pink Floyd. Presumably, the chickens did not note the irony of the title in light of their possible fate, but whether chickens can appreciate irony may have to wait for further research. 


In the end, Johnson makes the case in Mind Wide Open that simply bringing to light information about the brain and putting data and observations about the brain where they can be seen, measured, understood, compared, and, in the case of biofeedback, manipulated are a quiet revolution. What my parents’ generation thought of as a character flaw is now often thought of as a wiring problem. This revolution has occurred so quietly that we have not really registered the shifting of the ground beneath our sense of who we are. I do remember some of the moments along the way when I felt tremors. The first time I heard someone call happiness a “cascade of reward neurotransmitters” was one tremor. Another was when a psychiatrist friend suggested that, rather than telling a friend he might be depressed, I instead talk to him about chemical imbalances: It’s not your fault, the dipstick shows you’re down a quart. 

A few years ago, I read in the New Yorker about a particularly compelling tremor. Dorothy Otnow Lewis, Ph.D., a psychiatrist at New York University School of Medicine, had studied the brain-crime link for years. She received a grant to examine 100 juvenile delinquents. Strongly believing that damage to the brain was responsible for delinquency, she asked Georgetown University neurologist Jonathan Pincus, M.D., to give each of the children a neurologic examination. At the time, Pincus thought there was no connection between neurology and behavior. “After seeing the kids for himself,” New Yorker author Malcolm Gladwell writes, “Pincus, too, became convinced that the prevailing wisdom about juvenile delinquents—and, by extension, about adult criminals—was wrong and that Lewis was right. ‘Almost all the violent ones were damaged,’ Pincus recalls, shaking his head.” Together, Lewis and Pincus published a series of groundbreaking studies that demonstrated a link between violent behavior and damage to the brain from abuse or accidents. 

Ethical briar patches need to be navigated here, not unlike the ones posed by genetic technologies. Will people be required to submit to a single-photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) scan before they are granted a job or life insurance policy? Will cortisol levels, an indication of stress, be tested in children as a measure of their well-being? Johnson raises the specter of neurochemical profiling, which he says might not be a bad idea. “Would this describe the person fully, capture his or her essence?” he writes. “Of course not. But it might be more revealing than describing someone as a six-foot-three male, 142 pounds, and a first-born child.” 


We need more books like Johnson’s, books by good writers who speak conversational neuroscience but are not so steeped in the field that they cannot step outside of it and examine, interpret, and explain where this Brave New World of neuropsychiatry is headed. Few corners of human behavior exist on which neuropsychiatry is not casting light, from child rearing, to schools, to addictions, to learning disabilities, to juvenile delinquency, to criminal behavior. 

\At the end of Mind Wide Open, Johnson concludes by arguing that adventures in neuroscience are replacing psychoanalysis as the primary method for self-understanding. Snapshots of understanding from brain science are popping up in our everyday life, in the same way that Freud’s ideas gave us such common phrases as a Freudian slip and the Oedipus complex. For example, Johnson mentions a well-known politician, who, when he heard Johnson was writing a book about the brain, said “It’s all in the limbic system.” This way of thinking is everywhere, and, in the end, a good thing, says Johnson. 


From Mind Wide Open: Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life by Steven Johnson. © 2004 by Steven Johnson. Reprinted with permission of Scribner Press. 

At some point in the not-so-distant future, we may have tools—either diagnostic tests or brain-imaging studies—that enable us to create accurate neurochemical portraits of ourselves along multiple axes. We’ll be able to say with real confidence that we have unusually high serotonin levels, a dopamine system that is easily reset, slightly less testosterone than the average male. This portrait will look something like the old hit-point system devised by the creators of “Dungeons and Dragons,” whereby your character would have 15 points for dexterity, 12 for charisma, and 7 for wisdom.  

Neurochemical profiling sounds like something out of Sleeper or Brazil, but it’s not quite as crazy, or sinister, as it sounds. For one, it would not wed you inexorably to the fate of your genes, since life experience and learning also alter your neurochemistry. You can be high serotonin because you were born that way or because of your upbringing. Profiling would certainly be a crude simplification of your personality, but probably less so than SAT scores or the text of a personal ad. You’ll still always be able to learn more about people by hanging out with them for long periods of time, but when you don’t have long periods of time, knowing something about their brain chemistry might be informative. When people flinch at the idea of neuroprofiles, it’s usually because they imagine this analysis replacing all other ways we understand personality. But it’s not an either/or proposition. 

We may well get to a point when we can identify our good friends based on a shorthand description of their average neurotransmitter levels. (High serotonin, low dopamine, medium estrogen? That sounds like Carla!) Would this describe the person fully, capture his or her essence? Of course not. But it might well be more revealing than describing someone as a six-foot-three male, 142 pounds, and a firstborn child. You might easily identify a friend based on that description, and the information wouldn’t be irrelevant to understanding him. It just wouldn’t be the whole story. The same goes for your neurotransmitter profile. It’s relevant data, once you understand what it means. It’s not the whole story, but it’s surely part of the story, and excluding it arbitrarily from our personal narratives simply because it isn’t comprehensive makes as little sense as omitting our childhood experiences because that can’t explain 100 percent of our grown-up selves...

■ ■ ■

The argument of this book has been that modern neuroscience presents us with a new grammar for understanding our minds. You don’t need a Ph.D. to speak this language; with the right tools, and the right translations— some of which I’ve attempted over the preceding pages—you can get to a level of fluency that will make you a more informed, more self-aware inhabitant of your own head. For a hundred years, much of Western society has assumed that the most powerful route to self-knowledge took the form of lying on a couch, talking about our childhood. The possibility entertained in this book is that you can follow another path, with equally insightful results: going under the fMRI scanner, or hooking up to a neurofeedback machine, or just reading a book about brain science. 

If you spend some time exploring this new world, you will end up with a set of conceptual building blocks to use when thinking about how your brain works: some of them specific chemicals, some of them localized regions, some of them broader patterns of interaction between regions of chemicals. A handful of these categories have been trickling out over the past few decades: the left-brain/right-brain meme, the natural high caused by endogenous opioids, serotonin’s ties to social confidence: Expect a flood of them over the next decade. Thanks to the anxiety-prone nature of life since 9/11, the amygdala now teeters on the verge of becoming a household term. Google now reports that 103,000 pages on the Web mention oxytocin. As I was writing this book, I attended a meeting with a leading American politician, the topic of which has nothing whatsoever to do with neuroscience. When I told him that I was writing about the brain, he looks at me knowingly and said, “It’s all in the limbic system.” 

But if this new language is poised to transform our popular assumptions about how our brains work—if the politicians are starting to speak this language—the key question becomes: what will happen to the old language? Are those Freudian categories obsolete in the age of neuroscience? Or is it simply a matter of translating the old categories into a new tongue, trimming here and there where necessary? Given everything we know about the brain’s inner life, what parts of Freud are worth keeping? And more than that, what parts can we still learn from? 

About Cerebrum

Bill Glovin, editor
Carolyn Asbury, Ph.D., consultant

Scientific Advisory Board
Joseph T. Coyle, M.D., Harvard Medical School
Kay Redfield Jamison, Ph.D., The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine
Pierre J. Magistretti, M.D., Ph.D., University of Lausanne Medical School and Hospital
Helen Mayberg, M.D., Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai 
Bruce S. McEwen, Ph.D., The Rockefeller University
Donald Price, M.D., The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine
Charles Zorumski, M.D., Washington University School of Medicine

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